There is not another politician in America who could have delivered the speech given by President Barack Obama this morning when he received the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo. It was an intellectual tour de force and the force came from his own intellect not from that of his speechwriters. This was his speech, and it will indelibly mark his presidency. He set out the worldview that will govern him, and through him the nation, and, through the nation, the global community.
Obama gave several nods to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who also received the Nobel Peace Prize. Indeed, as the chairman of the Nobel Committee acknowledged, the award to Obama was, in a sense, the culmination of the downpayment the Nobel Committee made when it gave the Nobel to Dr. King, still struggling for equal rights for black Americans. Sometimes, when American politicians invoke Dr. King, the invocation rings hollow, usually because the speaker has only had to overcome the prejudices of a privileged life. Obama did not enjoy a privileged upbringing, except that he was born in an America that had wrestled with and struggled for and come to embody – not fully but significantly – Dr. King’s dream. Obama is the only American who could stand today where King stood.
The President gave a nod to King but he also gave a caution and brought his essentially Niebuhrian view into clear focus. Even while he spoke of King, he also said, "For make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world. A nonviolent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince al-Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force is sometimes necessary is not a call to cynicism — it is a recognition of history, the imperfections of man and the limits of reason." Nor did the President flinch from the moral ambiguity implied by the necessity of force. One of his best lines was about avoiding the "purity of indignation" and was spot-on in defending his break from the policies of his predecessor regarding the use of torture, when he said "We lose ourselves when we compromise the very ideals that we fight to defend. And we honor those ideals by upholding them not just when it is easy, but when it is hard."
Finally, while the President did not invoke St. Augustine by name he did so by calling explicit attention to just war theory. In fact, the entire speech can be seen in part as a defense of just war theory and an exploration of the ways it can be deployed in the modern era, and how the insights of just war theory, especially its insistence on resorting to force only as a last resort, can and should focus our attention on peaceful methods of first resort. The President defended his commitment to diplomacy but he was equally clear that there must be consequences to bad behavior by bad actors on the world stage. There is not a naïve bone in Obama’s body.
It will be curious to see how the President’s political opposition will try and make hay with this speech. I suspect that opposition will tell us more about them than about him. What we learned about President Obama this morning is that the intellectual rigor we admired during the campaign is still there, that despite the temptation of power to lay aside the search for intellectual consistency, this is a man who wishes to understand what he called the "moral imagination" of himself and his times. It was a magnificent speech and all Americans should be proud to have a President capable of delivering it.